So many of the anxieties that we face are rooted in events and circumstances that we’ve experienced in the past. Childhood traumas, challenges as a teenager and bad relationships in our adult years can all leave emotional scars that remain for years if not a lifetime. As long as they’re allowed to hang around, these old war wounds will continue to block your growth and success.
But rather than using those hurts as excuses or justifications for the anxieties and limitations you suffer now, recognizing and purging them can liberate you to move on and continue the growth that is your intention and your right.
The first step in leaving your worries behind is to establish an accurate assessment of exactly what it is you’re anxious about and how this worry routine began. When reflecting on my own life and the worry habits that I wanted to leave behind, I discovered a number of origins and reinforcements that needed to be addressed.
For example I did not grow up with anything even approaching financial wealth. We were wealthy in many non-financial ways, but dollars were scarce. One of the ways that my parents dealt with the situation was that my mother would sew many of our clothes herself. While it was a tremendous amount of work, not to mention a tremendous talent, as an adolescent I was always conscious of and embarrassed about wearing home-made clothes instead of fancy store-bought ones like the other kids wore. This was one of the many situations that reinforced for me that money didn’t grow on trees and required constant worry.
As I turned these and other origins of fear and worry over and over in my mind, that’s all that seemed to happen – I turned them over and over in my mind. I never made progress with my thinking. I never came up with any solutions. I simply regurgitated the same mental contents of yesterday, last week, last month, last year again and again.
Painful, boring and not the least bit useful.
One day, though, I was somehow inspired to take the constantly recurring thoughts out of my brain and put them down on paper.
And that’s when everything began to change.
All of a sudden, as I reread the notes I’d made, the worries were no longer in my head, they had somehow moved outside of me. I had gained an objectivity about them that hadn’t existed when they were simply swirling around in my brain. Suddenly, my worried thoughts no longer owned me. I owned them. And now that I owned them, they were mine to do with, to control and to dispose of as I pleased.
A major success strategy in conquering your own anxieties and worries is to get them outside of you, to externalize and objectify those feelings. And one of the most effective ways of doing this is to write your feelings, and the origins of those feelings down on paper.
Susan David, Ph.D. is an award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist and author of the #1 Wall Street Journal bestselling book, Emotional Agility. In an article for The Cut she wrote about the benefits of writing as a means to emotional processing. She cited research done by James Pennebaker, a distinguished professor at the University of Texas that showed how people who write about experiences that have been emotionally intense show improvements in both physical and mental well-being.
The process also allowed them to discover and benefit from the life lessons that are always buried deep in otherwise traumatic events. They were able to understand the experience and its consequences in a much clearer and more objective way.
I encourage you to start a personal journal.
Susan David suggests setting aside 20 minutes each day and using a notebook or a computer to write about your emotional experiences from the past week, month, or year. My personal experience is that, while it might be slower, it’s far more effective to write by hand than it is to type into a computer.
There’s something about the slower, more deliberate and kinesthetic act of writing that helps you objectify and externalize these negative emotions, which is an important part of the letting-go process. As you write, imagine the anxieties flowing out through your arm, your hand and your fingers, into the pen and onto the paper.
As you write, fully expect your self-censor to spring into action and try to shut you down or at least minimize your efforts. You’ll find your self-talk saying things such as, “This really isn’t a problem for me.” “It’s not that bad.” “I should be able to stop worrying on my own.” “What would my (mother) (husband) (rabbi) (children) say if they knew I was struggling with this?” “This is just silly! I’ve got more important things to do.” “My anxieties aren’t worth this much attention. Think about the starving children…”
Recognize these thoughts as they arise and smile as you recall that we predicted them right here. Don’t fight them, but let them gently pass through and then out of your mind. Imagine these thoughts as wisps of mist that drift into your brain and then drift right back out again. No need to pay them any attention.
The fact is that you do deserve to live a worry-free life. You are worthy of the time and attention it takes to let your anxieties melt away. You have as much right to a joyful, fear-free life as anyone and it’s time to be kind and gentle with yourself. So let all the “should’s,” “ought-to’s” and “you’re doing what’s?!” that come your way roll right off your back. This is your Me Time and you deserve it.
Don’t try to make the writing perfect, coherent or legible. The point is to let your mind flow where it will. Don’t try to justify, explain or judge yourself in any way. Just write. As you write about each anxiety and its origins, allow yourself to again feel fully the emotions that you felt way back then as you were told or witnessed or experienced something that caused you to be anxious. Feel, also, the emotions you experience every time a present-day trigger reinforces that anxiety. Let your thoughts flow into words on the paper as you freely describe your feelings.
So now it’s your turn. Pick up your pen and your journal and start writing now. When you get it out on paper it’s much harder for it to go back into your mind.
I was 13 and in the 8th grade.
Numerically, I was a hip teenager but in my own mind I was a complete dweeb. The gap between the two of me was both enormous and uncomfortable.
Whenever a situation is uncomfortable, we try to do something to correct it – turn up the thermostat, turn down the volume. When you’re 13 and desperately wanting to actually be hip, you start hanging out with a different (and questionable) crowd.
Which is why I found myself standing beside Peter in the boy’s bathroom, the two of us ganging up on and bullying a much younger, much smaller kid from the 6th grade.
Sigmund Freud believed that guilt is deeply rooted in your unresolved Mommy (or Daddy) issues. But it turns out to be much simpler than that.
Whenever there is a ‘gap’ or a difference between what you believe about yourself and how you act, between what you think and what you do, it will show up as the emotion of guilt.
When I was 13 I believed that good kids (like me) don’t bully others. Yet there I was, in the boy’s bathroom of St. Francis’ School, doing my best Scut Farkus imitation. In that moment, the gap between my beliefs and my behavior was huge. As was my guilt.
Fortunately, the trend was interrupted quickly and I didn’t go on to become an enforcer for a loan shark.
30 years after the incident in the boy’s bathroom, I was working as an international marketing consultant, flying around the country and the world on a regular and frequent basis. I also had a young family at home and my beliefs and my behaviors, once again, found themselves at some distance. “A good father is at home with his family every night,” was my belief. Platinum status with Marriott was my behavior.
Both these incidents are great examples of how guilt works.
All guilt is based on the gap between your behavior - something you did, are doing or are going to do, and your beliefs about how a person like you behaves. The bigger the gap, the stronger the guilt.
Because guilt is such an uncomfortable feeling, we urgently want to make it go away. But until we understand this dynamic of the ‘guilt gap,’ making it go away is impossible.
We make the guilt go away by closing the gap. By changing our behavior or changing our beliefs about our behavior, we bring the two into alignment and the gap – the guilt – is gone.
There is no shortage of others who try to stuff guilt down our throats all the time.
When you’re feeling sucked into traps like these, you have to get quiet and figure out if the beliefs and behaviors are genuinely yours or not. It’s way too easy to adopt the beliefs and behaviors that have been trained or shamed into us and assume they’re ours.
To get past the social programming, listen carefully to your own inner voice and determine if the beliefs or behaviors that are driving you are your own. Ask yourself, “What do I believe? How do I really feel about this?”
For much of the guilt you experience, you’re likely to discover that the gap is actually between your own, authentic belief and the behavior that you’ve been pressured into. The opposite is also true, the behavior is the genuine you, but the voice that’s shouting in your head belongs to someone else.
Regardless of the origin of the guilt, the resolution is the same – we eliminate guilt by closing the gap between the belief and the behavior. We bring the two into alignment.
Now, if the event you’re feeling guilty about is in the past you can’t change the behavior. So you have to change your belief about the behavior. And we do this by using the ‘except when…’ technique.
“Good kids (like me) don’t bully others...
…except when they’re 13 years old, feeling inadequate and insecure and have an overload of testosterone pulsing through their veins for the first time.”
“A good father is at home with his family every night…
… except when his job requires travel and he compensates by working from a home office to spend as much time with his kids as possible.”
The ‘except when…’ technique is not an excuse or license to compromise your integrity. It’s a healthy way to set down guilt about events that have happened in the past and about which you can do nothing now. It’s about moving on in a healthy, constructive way.
The sense of guilt that you’ve done or are about to do something that’s not for your highest good or will be abusing someone else, can be enormously beneficial.
Think of it as an emotional and behavioral GPS system with an auto-correct feature that nudges you in the direction of aligned behavior. This kind of beneficial guilt is like a warning light on the dashboard. It’s a signal that something’s wrong and you need to take action to change a behavior, correct a mistake or adjust a belief.
Make the adjustment and the light goes out.
You know them.
They’re the ones who phone or email you regularly. And they always share the bad news.
“Have you heard the latest about the Coronavirus?!!”
“Looks like it’s going to rain again today.”
“I bet the traffic is going to be bad this morning.”
“I think that lump on my arm is growing.”
Emotions, whether good or bad, are contagious. Hang too long around the worry-monger and you’re going to find yourself stressing about the same woes. Even a short chat with a committed complainer can ruin the rest of your day.
But there are other, more subtle and more corrosive side effects, too.
The really huge price of maintaining your membership in the Complaining Club is that it gives away your power to change anything.
Members of the Complaining Club spend an inordinate amount of time finding the culprits, passing judgment and placing blame for the circumstances in which they find themselves. And nothing changes. Have you noticed how their conversations rarely change?
As long as we invest our time, our energy and our emotions in blaming and complaining about how things are, we’ll never be able to stop worrying and move on with creating the lives we want to live.
As soon as you place the blame for your circumstances on someone else, you surrender all your ability to manage and direct your own life. As long as you believe that someone else’s behavior is responsible for your situation and emotional state, you’ve handed all your ability to change things over to them. Because unless they decide to change the way they’re acting, your situation will remain exactly the same.
Now, admittedly, it could very well be that someone else’s actions resulted in your circumstances. Your company was acquired and you were downsized. Your girlfriend fell out of love with you and left. The City passed a new ordinance and you can no longer keep chickens in your backyard. Expecting them to or insisting that they change the way they behave in order to please you, though, is a fool’s game. It’s simply not going to happen.
It’s both tempting and easy to blame CNN, Facebook, the politicians or your parents for whatever is happening around you. But it does you no good at all. Because, at the end of the day, it’s you who is doing the worrying, you who is losing sleep and you who is suffering the high blood pressure. Since none of the rest of them are stepping up to bring an end to your anxiety, if it’s going to happen, it’s up to you.
The first step is to resign your membership in the Complaining Club. The other members are the people in your life who can simply walk into the room and completely drain you of energy. They bring the tension, the stress and the anxiety with them and they love to share it around.
Avoid those people who drag you down. Stay away from the ones who always bring the conversation back to what’s wrong. And in those times when you can’t avoid the worry-monger, keep the chat short and follow it immediately with an uplifting treat for yourself.
Step two is to actively seek out the ones who lift you up and make you feel alive. There are others in your life, too. They point out the beautiful blue sky and the elderly couple holding hands. They pass along the good news and the uplifting stories. They’re the ones who always leave you feeling better than you did before they came. And they’re not just Pollyanna. They bring the genuine energy, the enthusiasm, the optimism and the encouragement.
All emotions are contagious. Run from the toxic ones and seek out and breathe deeply from the uplifting ones.
Blaming or complaining about the government, the weather, the traffic, big corporations, your spouse, your kids, your parents or anyone or anything else that appears to be the source of your discomfort might feel good for a while because it takes the responsibility off your shoulders.
But therein lies the problem. When you pin the blame on a person or circumstance outside yourself, you also surrender any opportunity to make things better. Because as long as the government, the weather, big pharma or your mother continue to behave as they do, you’re stuck. By assuming 100% responsibility for what happens next, you take 100% of the power to resolve the problem for yourself.
Misery does love company, but it doesn’t have to be you
Tarik Cohen is a running back for the Chicago Bears. He’s 5’-6” tall and weighs 179 pounds, soaking wet.
Trent Brown is a lineman for the (now) Las Vegas Raiders. He’s 6’-8” tall and weighs 359 pounds.
That makes Brown 21% taller and 100% heavier than Cohen.
Yet every Sunday for the past four months, Tarik has enthusiastically grabbed the ball from Mitchell Trubisky and headed, full speed into four guys that look just like Brown, not to mention the seven others who are lined up behind, ready to pound him into the earth. And the idiot’s smiling!!
What is he thinking!?
He’s thinking the same thing that you need to be thinking when you go face-to-face with one of those boogeymen that can bring you to your knees with anxiety.
What’s your go-to worry? Money? Your health? Retirement? Relationships? We’ve all got one issue or another that can stop us in our tracks and leave us wondering how or even if we’re ever going to get past this massive barrier. And when you find yourself going toe-to-toe against your own 300-pound wall of worry, too often it’s easier to give up and decide that you can’t…
Can’t stand up and speak in front of that group.
Can’t call that girl and ask her out on a date.
Can’t tell your in-laws that you’re going to raise your child your way.
But when you surrender to ‘can’t’ you sell yourself short. You put limits on your future. You agree to be less than you know you can and want to be.
There’s a lot of “face your fears and do it anyway” advice floating around out there. But I’m not sure I buy into it. You’ll never ‘out-muscle’ your anxieties – they’ve been around too long and own the winning record between the two of you.
No, you’ll never out-muscle your worries but, like Tarik, you can outsmart them.
If you watch him play, you realize that he never willfully runs head first into a 300-pound defensive lineman. He’s familiar with the laws of physics and knows what would happen in that kind of collision.
Instead, he cuts, dodges, ducks and dives around his big, lumbering foes, daring to be caught. He relies on quickness, dexterity and speed, rather than sheer volume. You can do the same when tackling your fears.
As opponents, fears are pretty dumb. They rely entirely on just one skill – the ability to get you to fantasize about a terrible future. You may have heard that acronym for FEAR – Fantasized Events Appearing Real. But they’re so good at this one skill, that you regularly allow that purely imaginary (and highly unlikely) future to loom in your mind as your reality.
To outsmart the anxiety, identify both the desire and the fear that are behind it using the following sentence:
“I want to _________, and I scare myself by imagining ____________. The key words are “I scare myself by imagining.”
For example, your boss has asked you to give a presentation at your next Division meeting. Let’s listen in on a new kind of self-talk that can cut, dodge, duck and dive around this worry.
“I’m worried about this upcoming presentation.”
“What do I want and how am I scaring myself? In other words, what am I imagining will happen if I do?”
“I want to give a great presentation and I scare myself by imagining that I’ll mess it up and make a fool of myself in front of my peers.
(Notice how you’re going into the future and scaring yourself with a fantasy of others laughing at you.)
“Have I ever made a presentation to this group before?”
“Yes, but only once, and it was very small and inconsequential.”
“Regardless, did I mess it up and did anyone laugh at me?
“No. In fact, several of them commented that I did a really good job and that they were impressed with how confident I seemed.”
“Am I knowledgeable about the topic? Is this an opportunity to demonstrate my abilities to the boss? Is this likely to look good on my resume?”
“Yes, yes and yes!”
“Have I ever done anything before that was embarrassing?
“Of course, everyone has!”
And did I survive without permanent scarring and perhaps even grow a little?
“So, when I think about it, this is a great opportunity to stretch my comfort zone and add to my skills and experience with no discernable downside?”
“I think I’ll start working on that presentation!”
It’s very difficult to win a head-to-head, just-do-it contest against your anxieties. But you can play a totally different game by looking for the weaknesses in your opponent. Where your 6’-8” opponent has lots of muscle and mass, you’ve got brains and agility. By recognizing the flaw in anxiety’s game plan (it only works if it can manipulate your imagination), you can easily deke around them and into the open field.
When Tarik Cohen crosses the scrimmage line he knows there are eleven enormous guys, all wanting his head. Anybody else would turn tail and run. But Tarik knows something they don’t. He genuinely believes he’s the best man on the field. And he genuinely believes that his speed and agility can beat their size and weight every time.
You have something you’re anxiety doesn’t. The ability to think your way through the fantasized events that appear real.
A little while back I received this message from one of our blog readers:
“After getting a degree in a subject that is fairly general and one that is proving difficult to find employment and perhaps a degree that is not a good fit, how can one NOT be worried?”
My wife and I love a good road trip. At the drop of a hat we’ll drive 500 miles for no particular reason. We’ve driven east-west across North America four times, north-south at least that many, and braved the roads in Europe numerous times, too.
Our constant companion on any trip is our Garmin GPS. We call her ‘Carmen Sandiego’ after the world-traveling character in the old video game and TV show. One of Carmen’s great gifts is her patience whenever we take a wrong turn. We giggle whenever we hear her tell us that she is “recalculating…”
While it’s a pretty time-worn cliché, life is also a journey, and one on which we regularly take wrong turns. So what should you do when you think that that last left-hander isn’t taking you where you want to go?
First of all, anyone who has been able to earn a degree – regardless of the subject – has proven themselves to be smart. A smart person wants to do smart things and worrying isn’t smart. It drains your energy, makes you sick, and since it accomplishes absolutely nothing, it merely postpones finding and acting on any real solutions.
The trouble with worry is that it consumes your entire brain with nothing left for really effective analysis and problem solving. Since there’s no brain power left to give a useful second opinion, though, worry seems to be the only option. But here are some steps that you can take.
Give yourself a day in which you ‘reschedule’ worrying. Tell yourself that you’ll get back to fretting tomorrow, but, just for today, you’re going to try something different. Your mind will try to tell you that worrying is the most urgent thing you have to do. But since it’s produced no good ideas in the last 24 hours, the next 24 can be safely devoted to something else.
On a recent trip to Italy, we found ourselves halfway down the wrong way of a crowded, one-way street in Florence. We had no choice but to back up. So that’s a good place to start.
Back up to the decision to take that degree in the first place. What led to that decision? Did it seem like the easy way at the time? Was it in response to someone else suggesting that you should? Were you pursuing what, at the time, was a genuine passion? Or was there some other reason that you decided to devote three or four years to learning those subjects? Be really honest with yourself. You’ve no doubt known why you chose that course of action all along. But we’re all really good at kidding ourselves and drowning out the real story with the one that sounds best.
I’ve had three very distinct careers so far in my life. I spent five years getting an architecture degree because, at the time, I was really interested in old buildings. But after working in that profession for about 15 years, I discovered that I wasn’t really that good at it or passionate about it.
Despite the fact that people were impressed when I told them I was an architect and the money was pretty good, I couldn’t continue on a road that wasn’t mine. It was tempting to keep going down the path I was on and took considerable effort to change. But I couldn’t look in the mirror and pretend I was being true to myself.
As you acknowledge the real reasons you pursued the degree (or married that guy, or got into that career, or…) you have to be equally honest about whether or not those reasons are still valid for you. One of the realities of travel is that, whenever you get to a new location you have a different perspective on the countryside. Having made it to the top of a hill, you can now see things you couldn’t see before. This new perspective makes it perfectly acceptable, and frequently advisable, to change your plans.
Now that you have this new knowledge and new perspective, what makes sense for you to do next? The fact that you started down this road is not always a good reason to continue. Recalculating…
Where do you want to go now? What do you want from your life now? Having lived and experienced the past five years, what is your passion now?
I’ve heard people object to the idea of going back to school, saying, “Do you know how old I would be when I finally finished that degree?” The answer is, “Exactly the same age as you’d be if you don’t go back to school, but a lot more fulfilled.”
My father, who was forced to leave school at age 16 when his father died, was a telephone repairman for 20 years. He hated every minute of it. At the age of 50 he decided he couldn’t continue. With a wife and five children, he finished his high school diploma through correspondence courses, quit his job and went to college to get his teaching degree. He then spent the last 15 years of his career with a giant smile on his face as he shared his passion for mechanics with vocational high school students. The transition was challenging for sure, but finding and being able to pursue his life’s purpose made it all worthwhile.
There are only two mistakes you can make when it comes to choosing an education (or relationship, or lifestyle, or career, or …) path. The first is to choose because you think it’s what someone else (or society, or earning opportunities, or…) wants you to do. The second is to continue down a road that you’ve discovered is the wrong one for you. To ignore the ‘recalculating…’ prompt.
So, having taken a day off from worrying, and discovered what it is that you really want now, the next steps are obvious. Not always easy, but obvious. You can tell they’re the right steps by that fluttering in your heart as you contemplate going back to school to get the degree that you REALLY want. To go find the woman you’re SUPPOSED to be with. To live the life that’s TRULY yours.
You can also tell they’re the right steps because the worrying has stopped.
P.S. I’m reminded of two road trips, one in Ireland and one in Italy, both involving wrong turns. The Irish turn led us along a rutted cow path, between two ancient stone walls and through a farmer’s field. The Italian turn landed us tangled in fresh laundry in someone’s back yard. In all our travels, these remain a couple of our most memorable moments
It’s 2:30 in the morning and you’ve been tossing around in bed for who knows how long already. You try three different sleeping positions, punch the pillow, throw the sheets off and pull them back on again but it seems that nothing is going to let you get back to sleep.
It’s not the bed that’s keeping you awake. It’s the worry that won’t let your mind calm down enough to drift off.
Anxiety and stress are some of the most common causes of chronic insomnia. It becomes a vicious circle, though, because difficulty sleeping causes you to be fatigued during the day, which can make the anxiety and stress symptoms worse, which makes it even harder to sleep…
Of course, you can always take a pill. But that only masks the problem and leaves you feeling drugged.
Fortunately, there are some very easy, very effective and completely drug-free ways to deal with those worry-filled, sleepless nights.
Step 1: Get up
That’s right, stop trying to fight your way back to sleep and simply get up and out of bed. The longer you lie there, angry that you’re being deprived of sleep while simultaneously stressing about whatever woke you up in the first place, the worse it’s going to get.
Getting up isn’t giving in to the anxiety, it’s taking control of it. As soon as you decide to act, you’ve regained the power to control what’s going on.
While you might be tempted to stress that you need your sleep and you’ll be useless the next day without it, that line of thinking only revs your anxiety engine even higher. As a dear friend of mine likes to say, “Sleep is overrated – we’ll all be sleeping permanently soon enough!”
Step 2: Get your journal and a pen
Behavioral psychologists and neuro linguistic programming practitioners use a method called ‘Pattern Interrupt’ to break out of a particular thought, behavior or situation. The process interrupts the ‘thought rut’ you’re stuck in and lets you regain control of your mind.
So in the middle of the night, when you can’t sleep, get up, find a comfy chair, turn on a soft lamp and sit down with your journal. It’s vital that your journal be one in which you write with a pen or pencil, not notes you type on your laptop or tablet. This is because the kinesthetic act of writing adds to the interruption of thought patterns that have been keeping you awake in two ways.
First, it diverts part of your thinking into the physical act of writing. When your neurons are directed at moving your arm, wrist and fingers to form letters on the page, they can’t be wrapped around what you did or failed to do in the past, ought to do in the future, or the responsibilities that you’re sure you can’t meet.
Second, the act of writing somehow lets the anxious thoughts flow out of your brain, down your arm, out through your fingers and onto the page. After you’ve spent five minutes writing, you’ll be amazed at how much more relaxed you feel.
Step 3: Celebrate
Writing about the worries and stresses that are keeping you awake is only going to wind you up tighter. So stay away from those topics by interrupting the pattern even further. Instead, write about your successes.
Start by making a list of five things you did before you were 18 that you were really proud of. Doesn’t matter how big or small they seem now, they were big to you at the time. Perhaps you caught a fly ball in little league. Or maybe you stood up in front of your sixth-grade class and read a poem you’d written. Review the various categories including sports, academics, your social life, skills you acquired and challenges you overcame. Did you ever win a ribbon in a sports event? Earn a merit badge in your Scout or Guide troop? Did you write a poem or a story? Jump off the high board at the local pool?
As you add each success to the list, close your eyes and remember how you felt at the time of that victory. Put yourself back into that feeling place for a few moments and let yourself glow with pride all over again. The challenges you overcame in those moments seemed daunting, even overwhelming in their time, but somehow you found the courage, the resources, the determination to succeed anyway.
Step 4: Act
The journal exercise alone is probably making you feel better already. If you pause for a moment and examine your feelings, you’ll likely discover that the stress and anxiety – whether about the situation or about the lack of sleep – have already been dialed way back. Take a moment to recognize that you’ve managed to interrupt the anxiety and control your mind instead of it controlling you. That, in itself, is worth celebrating.
Now, however, it’s time to turn your mind back to whatever situation was keeping you awake. Only now you’re in charge and going to do something about it. Using your journal, ask and answer the following questions.
For example, if you’re worrying about finances you could, in the next 15 minutes as you sit in your comfy chair, begin to make yourself a strict budget for the next three months. If you’re worrying about a relationship you could write a letter to the person with whom you’re at odds. (But don't send it until after you've reviewed it in the light of day.) If you’re worried about a health issue you could write the outline of a diet and exercise program for yourself.
Regardless of the situation that has you worried, concerned or anxious, there is always something that you can do, even in the middle of the night, that will help alleviate your stress. And in taking that action, you will immediately feel better. Because you did something that broke your mind out of that endless cycle. Because you took control.
Step 5: Go back to bed
If you’ve taken the previous steps you will find that your mind is much more at ease, that your body is ready for sleep and that you’ll be able to close your eyes and drift off easily. When you lay your head back on the pillow, allow your thoughts to be on the successes you’ve achieved and the obstacles you’ve overcome. Revel in the pride of accomplishment and knowledge that you’re still the same person who has achieved so much already. Let your brain be filled with the positive, proactive steps you’ve already taken and will continue to take in the morning.
These thoughts won’t last long, though, because before you know it you’ll be sleeping like a baby.
It's entirely possible to live a worry-free life. But a worry-free life is not and should not be a fear-free life.
Fear is a natural and extremely useful response that humans share with many, much simpler organisms. I live in a neighborhood that is heavily wooded and we share the area with a very healthy population of white-tailed deer. These animals are notoriously nervous and run at the slightest sign of danger. But, like all species with some level of intelligence, they’re also able to learn. It’s been interesting to watch as the deer have slowly come to realize that humans (at least in this neighborhood) are not a threat and the deer comfortably stand and watch as we walk or drive by.
Our fears diminish
You’re much smarter than any white-tailed deer and capable of learning much more complex concepts, much more quickly. Throughout your life, one of the patterns of your learning has been to decrease the number of things that you’re afraid of. When you were a very young child you might have been scared of the dark, thunder and even Santa Claus. When you were older you were afraid to jump off the high board at the swimming pool, ask a girl (or a boy) to dance, and speak in front of the class.
With every new accomplishment, self-confidence grows, your comfort zone expands and your fears decrease. Where you once couldn’t have imagined going into the big city alone, today you do it every day on the way to work. Where once you were a white-knuckle flyer, now you’re a seasoned road warrior. We all experience a level of fear when we are about to step up our game and try something new. But we analyze the fear, the risk-reward ratio, we learn how to reduce and manage the risks and we go for it. After just a few times we’ve mastered a new set of skills, fear has been completely replaced with confidence and you’ve grown into a bigger, better someone than you used to be.
Good news! You have more fearful times yet to look forward to!
As long as you continue to challenge yourself and raise the bar with new experiences, you will face at least some level of fear. If it’s an invitation to go skinny-dipping with the sharks off Australia or base-jumping from the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the fear may be intense, the risk-reward calculation unappealing and you might decide to take a pass. But if the challenge is to apply for a promotion at work or write that book you’ve had in your head for years the fears are entirely manageable and you’ll feel fantastic after you’ve overcome them. Your fear lets you know that you are standing at the perimeter of your comfort zone. You have the choice to maintain the status quo by running back to the middle or step outside that line and grow.
Fear demands a decision
Fear demands a decision about your next action. The psychologists call it ‘fight or flight’ but the choice implies that you’ll choose an action – run away or charge. Worry and anxiety, on the other hand, are states of inaction. Our friendly white-tail is frozen in the headlights. When you allow worry and anxiety to take over, you freeze and you stop growing.
Henry Ford, one of the great innovators of the last century, once famously said, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” In other words, the only obstacle to your success is your firm belief that the odds that are stacked against you are insurmountable.
The world we inhabit today is vastly different than the one we lived in yesterday. The rules have changed dramatically and it makes a lot of us uncomfortable.
You hear it every day:
Social media is so full of hateful statements!
Why has the world become so divided and partisan?
We need to do something about the wealth inequality
The world seems to have lost all sense of decency
Who’s fault is it?
It’s both easy and convenient to place blame. The boss who fails to understand your value, the friends who don’t support you, even the planets that fail to align in your favor. Regardless of whose fault you declare it to be, when the dust has settled, the challenges remain leaving you with two choices. Give up and go home. Or find some way to climb over, knock down or bust through the wall that blocks your path.
The wall you’re facing right now is called ‘change.’ It’s the need for you to accept that the strategies and tactics that got you this far aren’t going to get you much farther in this rapidly changing world.
I’ve seen so much resistance to change that I could sell it by the pound. Excuses fly thick and fast and the rationalizing that explains why the status quo is the best plan could float a ship.
Change your inner monologue
If we accept that ‘ol Henry was right, then the change that must be made begins by taking out the trash that’s in your head. Every time you catch yourself thinking that something is unlikely, improbable or impossible, stop. Catch yourself, think about Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Elon Musk, and then ask yourself if your little challenge is truly insurmountable.
It’s been called possibility thinking, positivity, optimism and ‘what can be.’ Napoleon Hill, a contemporary of Ford’s and author of the incredible book, ‘Think and Grow Rich,’ said, “What the mind of man can conceive, it can achieve.” It doesn’t mean it will be easy or obvious, but it will always be possible.
All your growth has taken place outside your comfort zone
It is almost guaranteed that the solution will lie outside your comfort zone. But the truth is, all growth happens at the edges of our comfort zones. Everything that’s good that ever happened in your life was out of your comfort zone at some point.
You don’t have to jump way outside of it, but start with some baby steps. Stick your toe in the water and dare yourself to try something different. Open yourself to the possibility that the kid with the tattoos and the purple hair, the old retired guy or anybody who doesn’t look or think like you just might have some really good ideas that are worth listening to. Open yourself to the radical notion that the thoughts that live so comfortable in your head just might be your biggest impediment.
It’s a strange – and wonderful – new world
The world doesn’t look the same anymore. And isn’t that great news?! Just as has been the case whenever the world has changed, there are more opportunities than problems. They just don’t look like they used to. It’s time to step up and decide that this exciting, strange new world is the one that you’re going to conquer.
Helen Keller, another contemporary of Ford’s and resident of an unimaginably challenging world once said, “Security is mostly a superstition. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
According to the National Institute of Justice, within three years, about two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested. Within five years of release, about three-quarters are typically back behind bars.
We can have all manner of debate about the criminal justice system, but one significant factor that contributes to this high recidivism rate is a characteristic we all share, regardless of which side of the law we find ourselves on.
We don’t like surprises
We’re all intimately familiar with our comfort zone. That’s the sum of the surroundings, the behaviors, the companions, the habits of thinking in which we feel safe and secure. In this place, with these people and these activities, I know what’s likely to happen on any given day. There are few surprises and few big challenges.
A significant number of repeat felons commit a crime in order to get back into jail because it’s frightening to be out in the world and responsible for themselves. “Prison may not be the nicest place, but they give me three squares and I know how things work.” Whether these thoughts are conscious or subconscious, the results are the same.
Finding your happy place
The rest of us exhibit the same behavior – we find that place, those people, those habits, those opinions, that food, with which we’re most comfortable, and we stay there. Should anything happen to move us out of that safe place, we take quick action – conscious or subconscious – to get ourselves back into that familiar, comfy place.
Surprisingly, this even applies when the new situation we’ve found ourselves in is objectively better. As much as many of us struggle to lose those extra pounds, if the scale tells you that you’ve gone above what has become your ‘comfortable’ weight, it’s usually not too hard to cut back on the pasta and do the extra sit-ups that will bring us back to the weight that we see for ourselves. Go too far below that, though, and we quickly self-sabotage in some way to get things back to normal.
All growth happens at the perimeter of your comfort zone
It’s familiar, safe and easy in the center of your comfort zone. That’s the good news. The bad news is that no growth can happen there. From the safety of that place it’s impossible to learn a new skill, begin a different relationship, start a new career or accomplish anything you haven’t before.
So what if, instead of thinking of a ‘comfort zone,’ we begin to think of it as a ‘comfort prison,’ with a high fence, razor wire and guard towers? A jail with steel bars that trap you in one spot and take away the freedom to pursue your dreams?
Every hope and every dream lies outside that comfort prison. In order to achieve them, we’re going to have to cut those bars, scale those walls and break out. And when we realize that we are both prisoner and jailer, that the walls are entirely self-imposed, we’re faced with a tough choice. We can continue to blame genetics, birth order, the boss, the economy, the weather or the alignment of the planets. Or we can dare to take that first intimidating step outside and realize that those prison bars, those boundaries of our comfort zones are flexible, infinitely expandable, and completely imaginary.
Mentation is a fancy word for mental activity or the act of thinking and we do it all the time. Experts can’t seem to agree how many discrete thoughts we have every day but estimates range from 20,000 to 70,000. Regardless, it’s a lot. For chronic worriers, many, if not most of those thoughts are problem-focused.
Many habitual worriers like to claim that their anxiety helps them solve the problems they believe they’re facing. But problem-solving is a very different activity than worrying. It’s rational, it’s action-oriented and it makes progress. When you’re worrying, your mentation takes on a very different tone. It’s very easy to tell the difference for yourself.
Worry is circular thinking
If your thinking is primarily worry-focused, you’ll find that, throughout the day, you’re regurgitating the same mental contents of yesterday. Yesterday’s thoughts were essentially the same as those of last week, last month and even a year ago. Your thinking goes round-and-round in circles and always ends up back where you began, concerned about money, health, relationships or the low-pressure zone that’s forming in the eastern Atlantic. Most telling, though, is that your thoughts don’t feel good. But no matter how drained, down and crappy the thoughts make you feel, you’re simply unable to stop them from cycling around, over and over again.
Mentation that’s aimed at problem-solving, in contrast, makes you feel good. It feels like you’re moving forward towards a solution. The process might be tough and challenging, but it’s also productive. You weigh options, test ideas and make choices. As with worry, you might feel drained after a problem-solving session, but you additionally feel like you’ve accomplished something useful. That the effort was worthwhile. Instead of circling back to the same place you were yesterday, you can see the progress that you’ve made and it feels satisfying.
Become aware of your thoughts
One of the keys to unsubscribing from anxiety is learning to pay attention to and become more aware of the nature of our thoughts. By learning to distinguish between a good old-fashioned worry-fest and productive, progressive, problem-solving, we can take the first steps to controlling and eventually overcoming the pointless and debilitating habit of worrying.
Ah, genetics! You may have been born with brown eyes and curly hair, but short of wearing dark glasses and a hat, you’re pretty much stuck with them. But you weren’t born worrying. That’s something you picked up along the way and are fully capable of putting back down. There hasn’t been a single piece of evidence that proves or even suggests that anxiety and worry are built into your genes.
You were taught to worry
Remember your carefree days as a child? You didn’t worry about a thing until your parents, teachers, coaches and the world around you convinced you that you should. “Don’t talk to strangers!” “Don’t touch that, you might get sick!” “If you don’t get into a good college you’ll end up a failure!” Every worry, anxious moment or fear that you’ve experienced has been learned, adopted or conditioned from your experiences through the years.
It might be tempting to say that children are naïve and don’t understand the threats that the ‘real world’ imposes. But how often do we wish or seek guidance to be more childlike again? They don’t spend time thinking about all the terrible things that might happen, they live in the moment, take delight and joy in the smallest things and deal with life as it comes along.
Your long history of success
And life’s been ‘coming along’ at you for many years now. Over all those years you’ve become extremely good at dealing with life as it comes along. The proof is that you’re still alive. You have successfully dealt with every threat and obstacle the world has thrown at you. There isn’t a single thing that has defeated you.
You might object and say that you’ve taken your share of bumps and bruises, nasty collisions even. And still, here you are today – alive, breathing, thinking and wanting to become an even greater version of yourself. That’s proof enough of your ability to survive, prosper, grow and be victorious.
Take a moment to pat yourself on the back! When you think about all the threats, risks, hazards, perils and pressures that you’ve laid awake nights worrying about, not one has taken you down. In spite of all the mental and emotional energy you’ve invested in anxiety over all the terrible tragedies that you were concerned might befall you, you’ve always emerged the victor. Sure, you may have been down on the mat occasionally. You may even have been close to throwing in the towel. But you didn’t. You’re still here, still reaching for the next prize.
That’s worth taking a moment – or an entire week! – to celebrate!
One of the characteristics of worry and anxiety is how easily and frequently we spin off, spiraling down through layers and layers of ever-increasing terrors. Here’s how it works:
We hear a news item about the Dow Jones falling 500 points today. Some pundit then goes on to tell us how the economy is overdue for a major correction and this is likely just the beginning. They dig up and recycle stories from 1929, 1987, 2008 and every other time the stock exchange has taken a dive. “Experts” are interviewed about what this means to the average investor and how this is likely to hit the ‘regular Joe’s’ 401(k) accounts, mutual funds and retirement savings.
This doom and gloom has you in a panic about your own investments and you begin to imagine your savings being flushed down one gigantic toilet bowl. Your throat tightens and your pulse rate goes up as you think about having to work three jobs for the next ten years to recover these losses. No, wait, you’re too old! It will be impossible to recover them! Now you’re imagining retirement in a rusty old single-wide trailer, parked outside some nowhere town as you wander the streets looking for bottles and cans to turn in for a few bucks at the recycling center while hoping to scrounge enough for the cans of cat food that will have to serve as your dinner.
24-hours later, you hear another news item that the Dow recovered yesterday’s losses and went on to a record close.
So much for the self-administered nightmare.
Thoughts aren’t always reliable
As rational and intelligent human beings we put a great deal of stock and faith in our ability to think. We register informational input, we process it, we reach conclusions and we make decisions.
But what if our thoughts weren’t always trustworthy? What if they aren’t always as reliable as we like to believe they are? The fact is, there are limits to rationale and reason. And even when those limits are very high, there are also, occasionally, very real obstacles that prevent them from functioning properly and reliably.
Many things affect our ability to think accurately and reliably. Have you ever had a few glasses of wine and found yourself saying or doing things that, in the clear light of the next morning, might not have been so wise? Have you ever been overcome with emotion, perhaps anger, jealousy, or even joy, and found yourself entertaining thoughts or making judgments – either negative or positive – that later seemed a little unreasonable?
Anxiety impairs thinking
Aside from true cognitive impairment brought on by disease or aging, there are many things in daily life that can and do impair our ability to think clearly. Fear, anxiety and worry are high on the list. Your ability to concentrate is one of the many functions that is hampered when you’re worried. And studies have also shown that anxiety can affect perception, attention, learning and executive functions, which are the processes that have to do with mental control and self-regulation.
Conclusions we reach and decisions we make in the midst of anxiety or worry are at high risk of being unreliable. And yet, caught up in the whirlwind of worry, they seem logical, inevitable and terrifying. So the next time you’re deep into your own worry-fest or it feels like you’re overcome with anxiety, step outside yourself for a moment and remember that the conclusions and decisions you’re making in those moments should probably not be trusted.
At the risk of being overly-scientific, the Reticular Activating System (RAS) is a bundle of nerves in your brainstem. Its function is to automatically filter out unnecessary information so the important stuff can get our attention.
What’s the ‘important stuff?’ It’s the stuff we think about most. The RAS is why you can be standing in a noisy room and yet clearly hear when someone across the room says your name. It’s why, when you start thinking that a red sports car might be a nice thing to own, you start suddenly seeing them everywhere.
It’s not that the red sports cars weren’t there before, it’s just that your RAS takes what you focus on and creates a filter for it. It then uses the data that your five senses are constantly supplying, filters through it all, and presents your conscious brain with only those things that you’ve told it are important. Your RAS takes your predominant thoughts – whether you find those thoughts to be pleasant and useful or not – and assumes they represent what is most important to you. And it goes looking for images, thoughts and circumstances that match.
None of this happens at your level of consciousness. It’s all going on in the background but you get to consciously register the results.
While the RAS spends its time looking for things and circumstances that match your thoughts, it also seeks information, people, news items that validate your beliefs. Your thoughts and beliefs provide the parameters and the RAS finds things in the world that confirm them. If you believe that you’ll never find a good relationship partner, you’ll discover yourself dating a string of losers. If you think that money is hard to come by, you will prove yourself correct. The RAS filters what you see and hear to match what you believe you will see and hear. In doing so, it will also influence your actions.
You might protest that you don’t think about poverty, you constantly think about how to get more money. And here’s where things get subtle. There are two sides to every thought – the aspect of it that you want, and the aspect of it that you want to avoid.
You don’t want to struggle with finances You do want to enjoy abundance
You don’t want to be sick You do want to be healthy
You don’t want to be lonely You do want to have love in your life
When we really examine and analyze those things we spend most of our time worrying about we discover that our minds are dwelling on what we don’t want.
In contrast, when you focus on what is going well, your RAS finds more things that are going well, presents solutions to your current problems, and things get better and better.
The choice is yours.